Monday, October 27, 2014

94. It warps your expectations.

Graduate students develop unreasonable expectations, but over the course of a long spell in graduate school those expectations swing from one unreasonable extreme to another. They go from expecting far too much to expecting (and accepting) far too little. Not everyone enters graduate school with the intention of becoming a professor, but after a while it becomes clear that an academic career is virtually the only career for which graduate school prepares anyone (see Reason 29). Once that realization sets in, graduate students begin to imagine a future in which they have jobs like those of their advisers and the other professors who surround them every day. They can hold on to this expectation for years. It seems perfectly reasonable, perhaps even modest, but it is actually quite unrealistic. You could argue that it is wildly unrealistic. As Professor Emily Toth (aka Ms. Mentor) patiently explains to a confident graduate student looking for affirmation: "No matter how talented and accomplished you are, you probably will not get a tenure-track academic job. Ever."

Eventually, reality dawns on even the most optimistic graduate students. They see what happens to others on the academic job market, and then they start to experience it themselves (see Reason 55). This is the point at which their hopefulness turns to desperation, and their expectations sink to such depths that they––by the tens of thousands––accept college teaching jobs for which they receive ridiculously little compensation. Graduate school has funneled them into adjuncthood (see Reason 14), and they quickly learn to expect extremely low wages in return for their labor. Adjuncts are routinely paid less to teach a class than their students pay to take it. In fact, the income of a part-time adjunct will often be less than half of a teaching assistant's stipend (see Reason 53). You can see just how meager adjunct earnings are by exploring the Chronicle Data website. Needless to say, this kind of academic employment comes without job security, insurance, or retirement benefits. Why are people, including thousands of people with doctorates, willing to subject themselves to this? Because they don't know what else to do. After years of living in a dream, they are desperate to stay in the academic game (see Reason 83).

Monday, June 23, 2014

93. There is no getting ahead.

Graduate school attracts highly ambitious people, despite the fact that academe is a terrible environment for highly ambitious people. How so? There are precious few moments of forward progress in an academic career. In academe, there is no getting ahead; there is only survival. If you survive your comprehensive exams (see Reason 81), survive your dissertation (see Reason 60), survive the job market (see Reason 8), and survive the tenure track (see Reason 71), then you can hope for exactly one promotion: from associate professor to full professor. That's it. The academic career ladder is very short. Unless you happen to be among the tiny cadre of academic superstars (see Reason 67), there is little hope of moving from one institution to another to improve your lot. If you earn tenure at an institution, you will likely never leave it. The "honor" of serving as department chair is a burden, not a privilege. For traditional academics, even moving "up" into administration has become difficult, as there is now a professional administrative class within higher education.

Of course, academe is supremely effective at frustrating your ambitions long before you find yourself (if you're very lucky) in a quasi-permanent academic job. In a recent poignant essay describing his frustration with the process of trying to secure a tenure-track appointment, Patrick Iber remarked: "Of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market." At the time he wrote those words, Dr. Iber had a PhD from the University of Chicago, a book contract with Harvard University Press, and a visiting lectureship at UC Berkeley; he was in a far better position than most academic job candidates. That does not make his painful experience any less real. On the contrary, it highlights the profound professional disappointment experienced by highly accomplished people throughout academe. There are now nearly 3.5 million Americans with doctorates (see Reason 55) but only 1.3 million post-secondary teaching jobs (see Reason 29), and the oversupply of PhDs is becoming a crisis in the rest of the world as well. A Norwegian newspaper has called it the academic epidemic. Legions of graduate students spend years of their lives preparing to compete for jobs that are few in number and promise little opportunity for advancement. The academic world is one in which ambition is rewarded with disappointment millions of times over.

Monday, January 13, 2014

92. There is a social cost.

As you grow older, you begin to appreciate the value and rarity of genuine friendships. Graduate school is hard on friendships, and so is the academic life that follows it (see Reasons 14 and 29). In many ways, graduate school is inherently alienating (see Reason 30), leaving you out-of-step with friends who follow traditional paths into adulthood (see Reason 12). It places tight constraints on your financial independence, as well as on your time (see Reason 62), and it often requires you to move far away from friends and family. On a more fundamental level, it requires you to devote yourself to things of no interest to anyone around you (see Reason 90), let alone to anyone in your wider social circles. The concerns that cause you tremendous stress in graduate school can appear hopelessly petty to those on the outside. Meanwhile, as you move deeper into a world very different from that of your friends, you will find it increasingly difficult to understand and relate to their experiences (see Reason 63). In addition to all of its other costs, graduate school can cost you your friends, and that is a higher price than you might think.

To make matters worse, academe does not provide an environment conducive to forming new friendships. Not only does it attract difficult personalities (see Reason 77) and pit them against each other (see Reason 2), but the academic job market routinely moves people to places where they have absolutely no personal connections to anyone (see Reason 16). Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, one professor noted that in 20 years he had never heard a colleague introduce another professor as "my friend." After describing two friends who broke down in tears "just about every single week of their graduate school careers," a different professor wrote of a colleague "who claims that he hasn’t made a new 'friend' in the academy since 1997." As difficult as it can be for academics to develop personal relationships on campus, they often have surprisingly little opportunity to form friendships outside of their college or university. The Chronicle has covered the fear of "social death" experienced by faculty members contemplating retirement: "One still highly productive faculty member well north of 70 summed up the struggle well when he said, 'It’s not about the money. I just don’t know what I’d do in the morning. I don’t have any hobbies and I don’t have any friends who aren’t here. This is really all I have. Does that make me pitiful?'"